We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler
I’m pretty sure everyone with a Netflix-streaming subscription has seen his or her fair share of documentaries. Netflix is, after all, a treasure trove of random documentaries, and, luckily, there are lists galore telling you which are worth watching (like this one and this one).
Bryan and I use our Netflix subscription almost exclusively to watch the following: House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, The League…and random documentaries. Some of the documentaries are surprisingly delightful (Jiro Dreams of Sushi springs to mind immediately, as does Bill Cunningham New York), some aren’t as good as we’d hoped they’d be (Being Elmo, for one), and some are so bad/boring we just had to stop watching them partway through (like The Parking Lot about parking-lot attendants in Charlottesville and The Restaurateur about Danny Meyer). We have watched documentaries about:
- A little old librarian and her postal worker husband who have one of the most impressive art collections in the United States (Herb & Dorothy);
- A guy who spends a month surviving with no money, living entirely off of the support of strangers on Craigslist (Craigslist Joe);
- How an episode of South Park is made, start to finish, in six days (The Making of South Park: 6 Days to Air);
- A too-good-to-be-believed West Virginia family of wild, drug-addled, criminal rednecks (The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, which, unfortunately, is no longer available on Netflix streaming but is, without question, worth renting from Amazon); and
- An agoraphobic mother-and-daughter duo, who are eccentric relatives of Jackie O., have fallen from grace, and are living together in a ramshackle mansion in the Hamptons (Grey Gardens, which is one of my all-time favs, and is, unfortunately, also no longer available on Netflix but is definitely worth renting).
In our Instant Queue, we currently have I Think We’re Alone Now (about two obsessed Tiffany fans—a 50-year-old man with Asperger’s Syndrome and a 38-year-old hermaphrodite who claims to have known Tiffany as a teenager) and Exit through the Gift Shop (about the eccentric and very private graffiti artist, Banksy—the guy who blew up Facebook feeds in October for this). We are obviously big fans of the random documentary.
The last documentary Bryan and I watched is Project Nim. Here’s the trailer, in case you’ve never heard of it:
It’s about a “scientific” experiment conducted in the 1970s. The goal was to teach an adorable little chimpanzee sign language and treat it like a human. The problem, of course (aside from some of the whackos involved in the experiment, like the woman who thought it was a good idea to breastfeed the chimpanzee), was that the chimpanzee wasn’t human, and he grew up to be a big, strong, sometimes mean, adult chimpanzee.
The documentary is pretty tragic, and falls into the not-as-good-as-we’d-hoped-it-would-be category. Our reaction was mostly due, I think, to our ignorance. The movie wasn’t nearly as fun and happy as we’d hoped it would be, because the real-life story didn’t turn out as fun and happy as the people conducting the experiment hoped it would.
Having seen Project Nim, however, I was much better prepared for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a novel about a family that raises a chimpanzee as part of a psych experiment. The chimpanzee is twinned with their youngest child and lives with them for five years. The family teaches the chimpanzee sign language, potty trains her, and treats her the same as her “twin.” The chimpanzee learns certain human characteristics, her “twin” learns certain chimpanzee characteristics. They understand each other and communicate with each other privately.
The story begins “in the middle,” when the youngest child is an adult. The book focuses on the long-lasting, painful effects of the experiment on the lives of all of the family members, including the chimpanzee. It looks at how memories (or lack thereof) shape our perspectives and understanding of events, and how communication (or lack thereof) with others who have lived through the same experiences can change those perspectives and understandings.
Rating: 3.5/5 🐵
The book’s narrator is extremely verbal and had a babysitter who taught her a new word every day (she uses “refulgent” in a second-grade game of Hangman, and her teacher reprimands her for using a “made-up” word). Her vocabulary is better than mine, and the book is sprinkled with obscure words, a handful of which I did not know and had to look up. Because I read so durn much, I don’t come across new words very often, so this was a treat. (Unfortunately, I was reading a library book–it’s much easier to “look up” a word when you’re reading on a Kindle or an iPad!).
Had I not seen Project Nim, this book would have hit me a lot harder. But, having seen that documentary, I felt, if not desensitized, then at least a little more knowledgeable. There were a lot of chimpanzee/family “experiments” in the 1970s, and they did not end up as happily-ever-after fairy tales. Chimpanzees are sweet and small and tactile and loving and controllable as babies, traits that human babies share. But chimpanzees are not humans. And this becomes evident quickly as the chimpanzees begin to grow up. The acceptance of this fact by the chimpanzee’s human “family” can be very difficult when all efforts have been made to treat the chimpanzee as much like a human as possible.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, like many of those real-life experiments, is not a happily-ever-after tale. It is a heart-breaking tale of loss and grief and acceptance.
Who should read it: Linda (i.e., people who are looking for good, thought-provoking books for book clubs); Tina (Dr. Mary Doria Russell, author of one of your favorite books, provided a jacket blurb that reads, “You know how people say something is incredible or unbelievable when they mean it’s excellent? Well, Karen Joy Fowler’s new book is excellent: utterly believable and completely credible—a funny, moving, entertaining novel that is also an important and unblinking review of a shameful chapter in the history of science.”).